A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: Friendship with Jesus

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote that people who pray to see God and have their prayers answered rarely ask the same thing twice.  Like the Israelites who met God face to face on the mountainside of Mt. Sinai, we cower in fear when God singes us with a presence that is overwhelming and, at times, threatening.

We keep God at arm’s length.  What if God searches us deeply as the scriptures attest (Ps. 139:1)?  What if the unveiling of God unveils all our secrets (Luke 12:2)?  What if God snags us in our selfishness and zaps us dead if we venture too close (2 Samuel 6:7)?

We preachers speak every week on the intimacy of God.  We encourage people to know God as they are fully known, to grow in a personal relationship with God.  Yet, God, ever mysterious, evades us and meets us with silence–God, immortal, invisible, the One only wise.

That is why we need Jesus.  In Jesus we hear a familiar, human voice.  In Jesus, we sense that God chose the best way to come near us so that we might not be singed, but experience a lightness of yoke and the easiness of God’s burden (Matthew 11:30).  We are not off the hook with Jesus; rather, we are hooked by the great Fisherman who calls us to do the same for others.

Thankfully, our liturgical tradition maps out a more personal relationship with God than the fright that God sometimes engenders.  One of my favorite hymns, What a Friend We have in Jesus, teaches us that we should never be discouraged, be open and share our sorrows, and realize that Jesus meets us in the midst of our vulnerability and weakness, not in spite of it.

Jesus is not out to get us, but to bridge the gap between us and God, that we might “carry everything to God in prayer.”

The hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is “not considered to be an example of great literary writing, its simply stated truths have brought solace and comfort to countless numbers of God’s people since it was first written in 1857” –Kenneth Osbeck.

Other hymns on friendship have comforted the church in ages past.  Jesus is All the World to Me ends every verse with the simple affirmation that Jesus “is my friend.”  I’ve Found a Friend, O Such a Friend speaks of Jesus’ sacrificial act of dying on the cross for us, likening his friendship to that of a tapestry of love: “He drew me with cords of love…And round my heart still closely twine, for I am His.”  No, Not One admits that “there’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus.”

A contemporary song by Casting Crowns, Jesus, Friend of Sinners, is a song of confession.  It acknowledges our failure to befriend others who need Jesus like we:

Always looking around but never looking up, I’m so double minded
A plank-eyed saint with dirty hands and a heart divided

The church’s hymnody provides God’s people not only with an alternative narrative, but also an alternative vision of who God is for us and how God relates to us. (Casting Crowns’ song is appropriate: “Open our eyes to the world at the end of our pointing fingers“).

God is not the seething, besieging white-haired judge who zaps people, but One who faithfully pursues us in a personal relationship through Christ.  It is a model of friendship, not animosity or antagonism.

Of course, this requires work.  We no longer have an excuse to run from God.  We cannot state that God is too powerful or scary for us.  In Jesus, God has removed every hindrance, and we have to take responsibility in cultivating that friendship.  Like friendships in the flesh, our friendship with Jesus requires time, patience, communication, honesty, and trust.  This is a great task, but it is among the greatest blessings we are entrusted.

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A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: The Shape of Liturgical Action

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

I fear that some people see hymns only as a nostalgic remnants from the church of yesteryear, that hymns are only useful to pass the time at funerals or revival services.  Hymns, however, play more of a role than that, and research suggests that hymns contribute to our theology and vision of the world just as much as scripture, prayer, and sermons do on a weekly basis.

Hymns are not the stuff of a stuffy church; rather, they shape beliefs and have the power to inspire ministry and missions with an ever creative God who gives us a song to sing.

I have come to appreciate a group of contemporary hymns (that’s not an oxymoron, people–yes, liturgical artists still write hymns for the church!) that empower and engage congregations, craft theology, and embody God’s mission for the world.  Some are better than others, and most rely on well-known tunes, but they contribute something fresh to a church still in need of a “new song” to sing (Psalm 98:1).

These hymns have in common the theme of justice.  Primarily published in closing pages of the Celebrating Grace hymnal, they speak of God, our relationship to God, and our fundamental Christian concern for God’s world and our neighbors.  They call us to believe, to decide, and to act.

One hymn is Show Us How to Stand for Justice, authored by Martin Leckebusch and copyrighted in 2000.  Set to the tune of “Pleading Savior,” it contains themes that clearly define the hopes and dreams of churches that stand on the cusp of a new century.

The first verse addresses the need for collaboration among Christians in order to reflect an inclusive and grace-filled Gospel.  We “work for what is right” and “walk within the light.”  We admonish each other to share with neighbors and fight against the greed that defined economic bubbles sweeping the late 1990s.  It is collaborative, but pro-life; hesitant with success, but rich with mercy.

The second verse deals with our hearts and minds, knowing all too well that our motives must match the sincerity of our actions.  It places the very essence of justice in the life and sacrifice of Jesus our Savior.

The third verse intends to send out a congregation on mission, mindful that our lifestyles not just at church, but Monday through Saturday, should reflect the love, compassion and grace of the very God we worship on Sunday.  It is not something we do alone, but with the “Spirit’s gracious prompting.”  The theology of this song is not introverted or insular — it assumes that the Spirit is at work in the world, and we are to join God out there.

Another hymn is Let Truth and Mercy Find Here by Ken Medema. I’ve had the privilege of worshiping with Mr. Medema at the helm.  He is a songwriter and musician who, though blind at the very young age, offers music both insightful and full of vision for sacred liturgy.

One of the most powerful ideas in this hymn is its insistence that, by sharing together in the love of Christ, congregations and the church at large have the power to turn strangers into friends.  Whereas “scheming darkness and evil power” may manipulate people, communities, and nations for its own sake, Christ’s “peace and justice” is a mighty stream that can cut through the harshest environments and pave a way for a united, dreaming community.

God’s truth is a “flame” that is “blazing,” one that draws people towards the Gospel, but then enacts the truths of Pentecost.  Spirit-filled people have visions, dream dreams, and prophesy on behalf of others, for the sake of Christ’s compassion, and for the salvation of a world still in need of redemption.  This is not an individual task only–it is the fundamental calling of the church in the 21st century, born out of the need to be Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation.

Hymnody that celebrates God’s provision and encourages God’s people to act justly are nothing new.  These are gems in the mines of a sacred church called from one generation to another to serve the world which “God so loved” and, by doing so, bring justice to bear in season and out.  The words may be new and tunes familiar, but it is a theme that shapes our theology of place, time, and sacred space all the same.

A Pastor appreciates the hymns: “Be Still, My Soul”

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

When my father passed away tragically four years ago and we were planning his service with ministers at his home church in Staten Island, New York.  I had only one request.  I did not want to speak, preach, or pray.  I did not want to give a eulogy or read scripture.

All I wanted was one congregational hymn to be played since I knew that the rest of the service incorporated contemporary music.  I chose Be Still, My Soul, set to the tune of Finlandia.

Be Still, My Soul certainly seemed out of place at the time.  The rest of my family did not know it.  Its slow–(and, I would argue, haunting)–cadence threatened to slow down an otherwise long funeral.  Why sing something nobody heard of, and why sing a song that was set to Irish, nineteenth-century music?  We even had doubts that the minister of music would be able to play it, let alone fit it into the Order of Worship.  But, as I mentioned, it was my one and only request.

During the funeral, people spoke.  The pastor preached for a good while.  We did have praise and worship, and rightly so, for all funerals for believers are worship services to the God who is giver and author of our lives.  But it was Be Still, My Soul that made me feel right at home, right where I belonged.  It was my way of bringing my tradition–my church family (nearly 800 miles away)–into our worship of God that day.

When we sang the song it was lovely.  It was indeed haunting, and it did invoke a theological voice that otherwise would have been lacking.  I barely sang it, and most of the time I held my nephew who wept in my arms.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to your God to order and provide;
In every change God faithful will remain.

Here I was, stricken into speechlessness at my father’s death, nearly drowning under a deluge of thoughts that things will never be the same, and the hymn communicated what I did not have the words or strength to say: That although my family and I were facing the worst situation we had ever faced–in the midst of change and grief and pain–God is faithful and God would provide.  We worshiped God together that day, but only this song, this hymn, reminded us about who God is and who we are to God.

The second verse goes on to declare that life is full of mystery, that in darkness we can still stand solidly on Christ who upholds our confidence and hope, to whom waves and wind–the chaos of life–still obey.  The song nurtured me as I nurtured my nephew.  My father died in a dangerous world, but in the embrace of God and each other, we were “safe and blessed.”

I have heard it said that the songs shared at funerals touch the lives of so many people who sing those same songs on random Sunday mornings in worship services and churches across America.  People still cry, for example, when we sing I Come to the Garden Alone because it reminds them of Grandma’s funeral or Father’s celebration of life.

For me, Be Still, My Soul will forever have that peculiar hypnotic hold upon my life.  It is more than captivating, it holds me captive to the Spirit–for it is within this song that I find myself as beloved, as hopeful, or rather hope-filled: “Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past, all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.”  Until that day, we have a song to sing, and that’s good enough for now, especially when words fail us.